Filmmaker Garth Stein's "When Your Head's Not a Head, It's a Nut" not only may be one of the ultimate home videos, but it also defines in its whimsically elliptical way what makes artists different from other people.
Oh, and by the way, it's also about brain surgery. (Part of the "P.O.V." series, it airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, and at 9 on KPBS-TV Channel 15.)
Garth's decision to videotape the process of his sculptor sister Corey Stein's effort to stop her life-threatening epilepsy may seem awfully intrusive, but it's obvious that Garth's project is really the family's: Mother Yolanda and father Marvin are on the production credits, and Corey is uncommonly comfortable in front of her brother's camera.
She's also comfortable with her decision to go ahead with the surgery, since her epileptic fits are preventing her from working on her sculpture and driving around Los Angeles, where she feels that she must live for her work. That immediately tells us that Corey is an ambitious, serious artist: Others may have settled for a restricted life on heavy medication and living, as she does during this period, with the folks in Seattle. But Seattle isn't the art center L.A. is, and Corey knows what she must do as an artist. (And she's doing it--her work is currently on display at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery in Santa Monica.)
Garth's camera also reveals the scared girl in Corey, welling up with memories of past socially embarrassing seizures, fighting them off with a manner that mixes cynicism and an amusing impatience with life's stupidities. Even when the doctor tells her that the surgery poses only a 3% risk of paralysis or death, her eyes roll to the heavens, perhaps thinking that she'll be one of the 3%.
It's a small part of her that thinks this way, though, because she uses her troublesome brain as a key subject in her work, and she talks with Garth about her big post-surgery artistic plans. Some are so inventive, so happily at play in the realm where post-modern sculpture has become a way of manipulating personal history in a physical space, that you wish Garth's video was half as imaginative.
Instead, he unfortunately opts for cliches like Corey walking through a forest or sitting beside the sun-drenched ocean to visually suggest the journey she's on.
He has wonderful subjects, though, from his skeptical mother, who will surprisingly break out into a dance at any moment, to his calm, long-suffering father, who clearly has encouraged his children's careers in art.
This is the polar opposite of that notorious hallmark in domestic cinema verite , "An American Family"; here, intimacy is kept within a family that seems to bond more closely as a crisis approaches.